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'Saturday Night Live': Looking Back At The Digital Short Era

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This past Saturday, during the Will Ferrell-hosted installment of "Saturday Night Live," the 100th Digital Short was aired. Also, when you factor in the very heavy rumors that Andy Samberg is leaving SNL after the season finale this weekend, it may also have been the very last Digital Short.

The Digital Short era began in 2005 when Andy Samberg joined the cast as a featured player and Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer were hired as writers. Now that the Digital Short era has possibly ended, what does it all mean? And where does this leave the future of "SNL"? Here, Ryan McGee from HitFix and myself obsessively break down the Digital Short era of "Saturday Night Live."
Mike:: So, Ryan, what is your opinion of the Digital Short era of "SNL" and is it for sure over?
Ryan: I think it's been crucial in keeping "SNL" in the cultural consciousness. Without it, would the show have continued? Absolutely. Would it have been as vital? Absolutely not. This makes me wonder about the show's future, since a future without Digital Shorts seems like a risk at this point. Then again, "SNL" has caught up with technology in a way that it may not need these short films as much as they did when the debuted. Agree or disagree?

Mike: Well, I could make a case (admittedly a stretch) that the shorts started in the show's first season with Albert Brooks. So the show has always been evolving. They evolved away, then they evolved back. But you make an interesting point: A good sketch will catch fire on the Internet, digital short or not. Put it this way: I don't think many people knew what YouTube even was before that sketch. "Lazy Sunday" made YouTube. I mean, that was 2005.

Ryan: Did we even HAVE computers then?
Mike: I still used my VIC 20.
Ryan: How many people started watching "SNL" again after "Lazy Sunday" broke on YouTube? And more importantly, how much more was the show written about in the immediate aftermath?
Mike: I think "Lazy Sunday" and YouTube were quite the symbiotic relationship, actually.
Ryan: So "SNL" now understands how to broadcast its clips to the world via online distribution. That still doesn't take away from the fact that the rules of Digital Shorts are fundamentally different than those that govern a live sketch. Will removing those rules streamline the show again, or make it monochromatic?
Mike: Well, think back to a few weeks ago: Sudeikis and Samberg were in that sketch about Booty Shorts. That wasn't really a commercial parody, but it wasn't a Digital Short.
Ryan: Right. And commercial parodies have been there since the outset of the show, to be sure.
Mike: I think pre-filmed "shorts" will continue. It just won't have the "SNL Digital Short" banner.
Ryan: So should we really be walling off The Lonely Island's output? Is it a subset, as you alluded to earlier, of the long-standing tradition of pre-packaged material on the show?
Mike: My question is this: Are they really over? Samberg's (most likely) leaving, but think of the Digital Shorts. There were two types: The Digital Shorts made for "SNL" and the Digital Shorts made to sell Lonely Island material. If The Lonely Island makes a new video, I can't imagine Lorne won't still want to air it.
Ryan: So long as they can be shown in other mediums post-air, I suppose I am indifferent to the backstage negotiations that make that possible. Things are complicated enough with music rights at this point with "SNL," which leaves many of our favorite sketches offline after they air.
Mike: But, yeah, as an almost weekly occurrence, they are over.
Ryan: And I'm OK with that! Maybe that's because I'm a sucker for closure. And that 100th installment felt like the end of an era.
Mike: And this season's offerings have been pretty bad.
Ryan: I didn't think about the possibility of having a period on the end of this Digital Short sentence. But once dotted, I felt good about ending here. And yes, you're right: This season's output has been dismal. But, let me ask you this: Do we romanticize past shorts in the way that we romanticize past seasons of "SNL" itself? I did some research into the complete body of work, and man ,I had put a lot of these out of sight, out of mind. For every "Dick In A Box," there are five mediocre ones, no?

Mike: Yeah, I looked at them, too. "Pep Talk."

Ryan: "Get Out!"

Mike: When is the last time anyone discussed "Nurse Nancy"?
Ryan: We re-enact it during each Thanksgiving Dinner. But we're weird.
Mike: But, I think the ratio as of late is much lower than 5 to 1.
Ryan: I'd concur with that.
Mike: Or, it's that much more difficult to get something to take off online. I mean, no one had ever seen anything quite like "Lazy Sunday" before.
Ryan: Well, think about the crowded marketplace for short pre-packaged comedy that has erupted since "Lazy Sunday" took off. Has The Lonely Island slipped that much over time, or has the field itself just gotten more crowded with content?
Mike: Both. I mean, for three of four seasons, every time "An SNL Digital Short" came up on the screen, I used to get excited in a, "Oh, boy, this just might be the next big thing!" way. But Jorma and Akiva were never invested in "SNL" the way Samberg was. And I think once they started doing other projects, the quality slipped.
Ryan: Well, Jorma's been busy scaring the girls on "Girls" with how much of a man he is. So that makes sense that he's been distracted.
Mike: And he directed "MacGruber"!
Ryan: Without Digital Shorts, how hard will it be for guests to circumvent or defy expectations? It's much easier for Natalie Portman to do it through her Digital Short than in a sketch, no? Or am I assigning the medium too much credit?
Mike: I think you're right. Good grief, I still quote Parnell's line in that, "If you could steal a smooch from anyone in Hollywood, who would it be?" But, you make such an interesting point about the past Digital Shorts. It's like the people who swear by only the original cast. Yeah, go back and watch those early shows. There are PLENTY of terrible sketches. I mean, this was the 100th Digital Short. Without looking, how many could you have named? Maybe 10? Maybe 20?
Ryan: I could have probably named 15, and done another 15 via descriptions (i.e. "It was the one with the song and the guy and the coke"). But in doing the research for this -- so I could sound smart -- I realized how many of these I had simply pushed out of my brain.

I mean, "Boogerman"!!??!!
Mike: Unfortunately, that's one I could have still named.

Though, "Roy Rules" is long gone.

Ryan: Were you someone that needed a story out of these shorts to make them work, or were the more obtuse, abstract, almost anarchic ones your cup of tea?
Mike: I could go either way. Like the rest of the world, I loved "Lazy Sunday." But I also loved "And I threw It On the Ground." (Does that count as abstract?)

Ryan: I'M NOT A PART OF YOUR SYSTEM!!!! (Sorry, I love that one too.) I guess I preferred those that had an internal logic, even if that logic was bizarre. But I also found the "Doogie Howser" short a beautiful little tone poem of a piece. So long as I felt the piece wasn't made as an inside joke meant only to please themselves, I tended to at least appreciate it, even if I didn't always enjoy it.

Mike: OK, two more things: In my opinion, the best sketch from the last two seasons is "Don' You Go Rounin' Roun to Re Ro." It was pre-filmed and it wasn't a Digital Short. With Samberg gone, maybe this opens up the door for more freelance directors?
Ryan: Right. I was wondering about this. How insider baseball are these shorts? Meaning, if the Lonely Island guys stop making these, but "SNL" continues to produce sketch-length films ... how many people would actually notice?
Mike: That's interesting. Us, obviously.
Ryan: Sure, but is losing these three tantamount to "Community" maybe losing Dan Harmon? No way. Every fan of "Community" is a super knowledgeable fan, it seems. But a good chunk of "SNL" fans are casual. I think they might sense a change in quality, but not related to matters off-screen.
Mike: I think this opens up "SNL" to a spectrum of filmmakers, actually -- if "SNL" wants to go in that direction.
Ryan: I like the idea of "SNL" essentially becoming a patron of digital comedy. "Funny or Die" already does this. Why wouldn't Lorne Michaels co-opt the models? Who says any cast member has to be in any short?
Mike: Right. The casual fan doesn't watch "Don' You Go Rounin' Roun To Re Ro" and think, "Boy, I hope Samberg is OK with this."
Ryan: It's super easy to get lost in the forest about these things. For instance, would someone who is not aware of potential cast changes be seriously thinking about last week's short as its last? Many might be thinking, "I can't wait to see the next 100!" It's silly to expect closure for a series of Digital Shorts on a sketch comedy program. But now that they've done it, I'd rather they leave well enough alone. Should these continue in some format without the Lonely Island guys, I would hope "SNL" would rebrand them. Not only is that a classy move, but it opens up the space for more creative endeavors from fresh voices.
Mike: I agree. So ... your final thoughts on the Digital Short era?
Ryan: I think it saved the show from calcification. It didn't save the show but breathed new life into it at the perfect time and place. It also democratized comedy in a way that has reverberated well beyond "SNL". In fact, we take its influence so much for granted that I'm glad we took time to discuss it now to give these shorts their proper due.
Mike: I think "SNL" was in a bit of a rut post-Will Ferrell. Having Tina Fey around kept the show relevant, but I do think the Digital Shorts pushed the show beyond relevant. It made SNL "hip" again, which is something I never thought I'd see. Like everything "hip," they can't stay that way forever. If this is the end, it was nice to see them go out on a high note. And, like you said, I hope this opens up a place for other filmmakers.

God, we almost wrote the same thing.


Ryan: Haha. Should we tell people we wrote those independently of each other? Or do they already think one of us is actually a pen name for the other?


Mike: We disagree too much to be the same person.


Ryan: Truth.


Ryan McGee writes about "SNL" every week for Hitfix. You can contact Ryan directly on Twitter.


Mike Ryan writes about "SNL" every week for Huffington Post TV. You can contact Mike directly on Twitter.